The Illusion of “Neurosex”: Your Brain Is Not “Male” nor “Female”

There’s been an unfortunately increasingly popular tendency among many trans communities to rely on some notion of “brain sex“, “subconscious sex“, etc, to provide justificatory accounts of trans womanhood/manhood. The most obvious manifestation of this historically ignorant & sociologically uninformed way of thinking about trans-liberation is the appeal to “neuroscientific” studies that purportedly demonstrate that transness is intrinsic, “biological”, and in a way that trans people are scientifically their true gender (we are, of course, falling right into a naturalistic fallacy).

While this justificatory account of the production of scientific knowledge may be a fascinating sociology of science question, it’s more immediately a political question. The discourse about “male brains” and “female brains” has underpinned a large host of misogynist bioessentialist thought over the last few centuries, including & especially within the scientific sphere. This has elicited a quite justified* reaction from the host of radical, cultural, materialist, lesbian, queer, scientific and radical (trans)feminists who have given radical accounts of sex-gender based not in illusory biology (aside from cultural feminists), but in the material (re)production of difference.

What are the bases for this purported “neurosex”? There is a small, but growing, literature of sex difference research that is aimed at interrogating the purportedly neurobiological foundation of ‘transsexuality’. It is important to recognize that this burgeoning literature does not originate from a trans-inclusive or feminist perspective, but from a classificatory, pathologizing way of constraining trans subjectivity under the microscope of the scientific interlocutor. The transsexual becomes the subject of the scientist, for her (the subject is nearly always a trans woman) brain is a site for knowledge production. She is not considered as a person to be cared for, but as a subject to be poked, prodded & studied.

The “Science”

The ‘original’ study in the this line of literature purporting to demonstrate that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘female’/’male’ brains was a 1996 study done by Zhou et. al. It looked at the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis of the brain of 6 postmortem ‘male-to-female’ transsexuals in comparison with cis ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. The way that gender norms have infested scientific knowledge production is quite apparent from the start. Brains are presupposed to be dimorphically (that is ‘having two forms) sexed as “male” or “female” so that the finding that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains is either a justificatory or delegitimatizing account of their true sex-gender. But, as we will see later, it is not obvious, and in fact false, that brains are organized dimorphically.

This initial study has been cited 872 times, including in other literatures like explicitly bioessentialist work such as Lippa’s “Gender, nature and nurture”. It is perhaps the most focused upon within the entire literature, meaning it has been the subject of a number of critiques: the horrific sample size (n=6 for the trans individuals), the comparison group(s), sexuality composition, analyzing brain structure postmortem, whether or not the subjects had taken hormones. To  me, all of these critiques have important points to them, especially situating the sample size of the group within the replication crisis within neuroscience.

Whose Science?

Here we ought to consider the parent field of this series of studies: neuroscience. Neuroscience has received increased attention & funding as a revolutionary “neurocognitive” turn in many sciences (behavioral, psychological, etc). This “turn” has been the subject of a number of criticisms, not least by William Uttal. In his book “The New Phrenology“, he critiqued the notion that we can localize psychological processes to a particular region of the brain. That is, the very  subsets of the whole brain that are being interrogated for their sex differences, may not prove very useful in determining the behavioral consequences of these differences, whatever they may be. This idea that a person’s psychological attributes (emotions, intelligence) can be “located” in a particular region of the brain reminds many of the pseudoscience of phrenology, hence the title. Not only is there a theoretical objection to the knowledge that is asserted to be produced by neuroscientific studies, but there’s an empirical one. Despite the valorization of neuroscience in the media as another “biology” to ground the “nature” of the human body, it has a lower replication rate than psychology; famously affected by the replication crisis. In Uttal’s Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta Analysis, he analyzes the findings from the field and finds them very wanting in terms of empirical support. Other works critiquing naive neuroscience are Rees & Rose’s The New Brain Sciences, De Vos & Pluth’s Neuroscience and Critique: The Limits of the Neurological Turn, and Satel & Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed.

Scan, Compare, Contradict, Deny and Repeat

Returning back to the ‘transsexual brain studies’, a later set of studies after Zhou et. al have produced mixed findings. Some find that the sexuality composition of the ‘transsexual’ selection produces differing results as to the ‘grouping’ that ‘transsexuals’ fit into (i.e. straight [androphilic] trans women have ‘female’ brains in contrast to lesbian [gynephilic] trans women who have ‘male’ brains). Some find that it is not that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘male‘ or ‘female‘ brains, but brains intermediate between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ groupings. And still others confirm the initial finding that trans women have ‘female’ brains and trans men have ‘male’ brains.

For example, a 2000 study by Krujiver et. al again studied the “bed nucleus of the stria terminalis” and discovered that, in a sample of 42 individuals total, that ‘female-to-male’ transsexuals have a ‘male’ number of neurons while ‘male-to-female transsexuals’ have a ‘female’ number of neurons. They also reported that sexuality & hormone treatment did not affect the results. This cannot be considered a replication as 26 of the patients (most of whom were not trans) came from the original Zhou et. al ’96 study. Just as in the other study, all of the postmortem brains analyzed were medical deaths: they had died from a disease or other medical condition. This makes it difficult to interpret the results, especially in light of the inclusion of a large number of AIDS patients & the complex etiology and effects of these diseases. Indeed, one trans female patient had “cytomegaly of the brain”, along with one of the lowest brain weights in the entire study! It is also unclear as to how the authors made the inference that hormone therapy was irrelevant, as they included only one individual that was not on hormone therapy. This individual also happened to be 84 years old! They reported that they did not find an age interaction in any of the numbers, but this is severely limited by the small sample size & methodological heterogeneity.

To delve into the long list of poorly conducted studies would require too much space in this already lengthy article, so I will save this task for another period. There is, however, a useful review of the heterogeneity among study results here.

The “Female Brain”?

Let’s take a moment to consider what the findings that trans women have ‘a female brain’ means. In these studies, there is a comparison group of ‘normal‘ (i.e. cis) women who the ‘abnormal‘ (i.e. ‘transsexual’) women is compared to. The variability within cis women is elided and collapsed into a single ‘average’ value, an awfully unfruitful way of thinking about differences in brain structure. If we are to call a particular brain “size” of a specific section that of a “female” or “woman”, what of the other cis women who have “male” values? By sexing/gendering quantities, we are introducing quite an interesting site of (re)sexing the body. Not only do the studies collapse variability among cis control groups, but they completely elide any variability among ‘transsexual’ test subjects. It is not obvious that every trans woman will have a ‘female’ brain: this would be very unusual given that not all cis women do. But if a justificatory account of trans womanhood is supposed to emanate from this science, then how does one consider the trans woman with a ‘male’ brain? The typical correction to the  discussion of the cis woman with a ‘male’ brain is to shy away from sexing the brain, but this response is unintelligible and out of reach for the purportedly justificatory narrative, for both cis & trans women.

2019-05-16 10_50_39-Sci-Hub _ A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality

This discussion of ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains is awfully reminiscent of the ways that TECFs (trans-exclusionary cultural feminists) and other transphobes have talked about sexual difference: some body part is innately sexed, producing a particular meaning of sex that includes/excludes particular groups. It is not relevant that some individuals that we ought to consider women/men are included/excluded in/out of the wrong category, because there is the presumption that this particular physiological characteristic grounds and defines sex-gender. For the TECF, the intersex body produces a challenge of classification. For trans neuroessentialist, the cis women’s ‘male brain’ is the site of failure. For the traditional conservative bioessentialist, the masculine lesbian defies a particular way of thinking about the sex-gender equivalency. United in their exclusion is the thought that there must be a physiological/physiognomic way of defining a gender-sex that provides justification for a liberatory politics.

But as the discussion of the trans woman with the ‘male brain’ shows, none of these discussions of physiological grounding of sex-gender actually hold up theoretically. The anti-trans cultural feminist has provided a litany of valid objections to the ‘neurosex’ framework, the transfeminist an account of intersex bodies in sexual difference to object to the genital/chromosomal formations of sex-gender, the liberal feminist objects to the conservative account on the questioning of the connection between their theory of ‘sex roles’ and ‘sex’ (this of course may not be a useful distinction after all). If a neuroessentialist account provided meaningful justification for trans womanhood, one ought to see trans women getting their brains tested & compared to ‘female’ values. But we do not see this form of self-validation: scientific knowledge in the form of averages (i.e. the average volume of trans women’s brain structures in comparison to cis women/men) is assumed to apply to all trans women, regardless of what type of ‘bell curve‘ brains are supposed to be distributed on. A trans woman with SD=2 away from the mean is assumed to have just as much of a ‘female’ brain as a trans woman with SD=-2, despite one falling right as ‘hyper-female’ and another as ‘male’ in the original account of ‘brainsex’ (the one formulated by academic institutions).

Do trans women have “female brains” or simply “female ratios”? Often forgotten is that there is an average (as always, the reality of average sex differences exists on a continuum) difference between the size of the brains (and heads) of ‘males’ and ‘females’. On this account, trans women have ‘male’ brains: their average head (and thus brain) size would be firmly within the ‘male’ range, whatever this is supposed to mean. But the cited studies don’t compare total brain volume, but rather the size of particular brain structures corrected for total brain volume. This is supposed to fix the issue about whether sex differences in brain volumes are simply an artifact of total body size. It’s not entirely clear why the neuroessentialist ought to use this ratio standard rather than the ‘total volume’ standard.

The Male Brain is Empty

It must also be questioned what, exactly, a “male” brain is supposed to represent. If, for instance, the finding that trans women have a “female” brain is purportedly not neuroessentialist or reproductive of the gender roles trans people often deconstruct, then it begs the question of what does a ‘male’ brain mean? The typical meaning of ‘male’ brains within scientific spheres is typically within the framework that men & women have different brains, causally related to prenatal hormones & chromosomal differences, which then produces distinct behaviors. If this essentialist formulation of “male” brains is rejected by the trans affirmationist, then it seems there is not much left to a ‘male’ brain. If it is simply a quantitative average, then it is unclear why this would be in any way constitutive of trans women as women & trans men as men any more than the finding women are, on average, shorter than men is constitutive of tall women as ‘men’ and short men as ‘women’. It is interesting to note that the portions of the brain studied by scientists in (in)validating trans gender-sexes are typically the ones involved in the discussion of ‘innate’ gendered preferences: bed nucleus of the stria terminalis INAH3, etc. This review of the “trans brain” literature is filled with claims that sexed behavior is innate, specifically affirming the misogynist “brain organization hypothesis” that has been debunked time and time again.

The Queer Feminist Scientist’s Objection

Even more, the entire concept of a ‘male’ / ‘female’ brain must be questioned on more empirical grounds (rather than the theoretical objection that it provides a basis for pro-trans attitudes). There have been a litany of feminist empirical works seeking to question the mainstream narrative that ‘male’ brains produce ‘male’ behaviors, and ‘female’ brains ‘female’ behaviors. One of the first books (I skip over Ruth Bleier’s important work) attempting to debunk this idea is Anne Fausto-Sterling (whose name one might recognize for producing a book Sexing the Body that is commonly cited & discussed by the very same people trying to push neuroessentialism) and her Myths of Gender. Although the book is partially devoted to disproving the oft-cited ‘greater male variability’ hypothesis that has been revived (in James Damore) and other silly arguments about IQ, innate differences in aggression, it also has an addendum to the second edition discussing sex differences in the brain. She (FS) discusses the aforementioned issue of total brain volume corrected for body size & the illusory corpus callosum. The numerous methodological choices one makes in measuring the body have a profound influence on the results obtained: a point obvious to any scholar of the sociology of science. The particular way that one cuts the corpus callosum will affect the presence or absence of sex differences, the size of the difference, and the qualitative differences one finds. Whether one “scans” the brain with an MRI or “photographs” and “dissects” it with a postmortem analysis is also important. But a point Fausto-Sterling makes earlier in the book, in the chapter on genes, seems most important & most fruitful to me: that brains developed at the interaction of a complex system of genes, cellular environments, biological and social environments. As more & more research has demonstrated, the biological and social are not easily separable, and the ontogeny of found differences, whether or not they meaningful exist, cannot be assumed from the existence of the differences.

Another infamous book on the sex differences in the brain is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender [apologize for the link]. While her focus is mostly on the connection between purported sex differences in the brain & the behaviors they are supposed to be causally connected to, she does talk about the complex ways that social learning & socialization can manifest themselves literally as biology. In chapters 15 and 16, she discusses the now seemingly obvious finding that behavior, the social world, environmental factors influences development, including of the brain: neuroplasticity. This novel concept is used to help explain sex differences: perhaps it isn’t that sex differences in the brain are determined by one’s genes at birth, but rather by a complex interaction between genes & environment, nature and nurture. Or perhaps, as developmental systems theorists put it, there is no distinction between nature and nurture.

The most recent magnum opus (skipping over Lise Eliot’s Pink Brains, Blue Brains) on “brains” is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain. I have unfortunately been unable to obtain a copy, but she repeats and elaborates on the many arguments formed within Cordelia Fine & other’s books. She argues that brains cannot be gendered dimorphically (or sexed in most cases) because there is more variation within ‘sexes’/’genders’ than between. This is reminiscent of the Lewontin argument against the existence of races on genetic grounds: there is more genetic variability within races than between them. While we may be able to “statistically distinguish” brains based on some overfit machine learning algorithm, how is that supposed to tell us anything about the differences between brains other than that we can create all sorts of hyperpredictive models. That is, statistical abstraction doesn’t inform us about the ontology of sex differences. Most often cited is a 2015 study done by Daphna Joel (who is very trans-affirming: see my post here) that purported to show that brains are not ‘sexed’, they are intersex. In her study, she demonstrated that most brains are not ‘extreme’: they don’t have all of the ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics on each side of the ‘dimorphic’ spectrum. Most brains are a heterogeneous composition of differently ‘sexed’ portions: someone may have a ‘male’ amygdala, but a ‘female’ hypothalamus.

Who Benefits

Now we have to return to the issue at hand: whether “neurosex” exists & supports trans narratives. If someone can have parts of their brain that are differently sexed, then how does one “sex” the brain as a whole? Do we privilege specific parts of the brain that we think are most relevant to ‘determining’ sex? That seems like an inevitably social decision that won’t satisfy any critics. I think it has become clear that not only does the neuroessentialist narrative of “trans women have female brains” & “trans men have male brains” not justify a trans-affirming narrative, but that brains aren’t dimorphic enough to even justify classifications of ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains.

Next, we must turn to the consequences of adopting this narrative: how the entire trans community is supposed to fit within it. Obviously, this discussion of ‘male’ brains and ‘female’ brains has already started to adopt an exorsexist conceptualization of gendered difference, privileging binary gender legitimacy over that of nonbinary people. But how are nonbinary people supposed to fit within this “male brain” – “female brain” conceptualization. Some people have suggested we ought to conceive “brainsex” as yet another spectrum. This may seem plausible at first: nonbinary individuals are neither “male” nor “female”, but it immediately raises a few questions. First, what of the nonbinary identities that exist outside the already exorsexist framework of a gender ‘spectrum’ (presuming polarity and opposition)? The myth of nonbinary as “between” male and female has been the subject of numerous critiques for not only being explicitly misrepresentative of nonbinary identity, but exorsexist/transphobic for imposing a particular view of transness onto nonbinary identity. Are agender & bigender people supposed to occupy neither ends of the ‘brainsex’ spectrum or both, respectively? Or are they to be thrown under the bus in a respectability politic in the goal of transsexual legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public & medical establishment? Second, if we are appealing to a spectrum to legitimize transness, then how are we to pick where “male” starts & “nonbinary” begins. If there is a range from -1 to 1, where 1 represents maleness and -1 represents femaleness, then where does femaleness end, nonbinary begin & end & maleness start? Do ‘female brains’ go from -1 to -1/3, nonbinary from -1/3 to 1/3, and ‘male brains’ from 1/3 to 1? This would divide up the spectrum evenly. But then we encounter our earlier objection: given that brains don’t exist in dichotomies, they exist in distributions within groups, there are going to be trans women whose brains are “nonbinary” or “male”, nonbinary people with “male” or “female” brains & trans men with “nonbinary” or “female” brains. Here we have just legitimized a privileged few whose brains were lucky enough to be the “right” size and/or “right” proportions.

Who is “neurosex” serving? Not women, not men, not trans people, not nonbinary people, not feminists nor transfeminists. The only people it “serves” is the academic misogynists, the “sex difference” evolutionary psychologists, the right-wing reactionaries. It’s time for transfeminists to abandon this model.


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Editorial, TERFs

Daphna Joel and the Limits of Cis – Trans Dichotomies

Daphna Joel is one of my favorite researchers in the neuroscience field (along with Jordan-Young, Fine and a set of others – almost all of whom are implicitly supportive of trans people, the rest haven’t voiced any opinions or comment on trans people). But unknown to many is that she also does research specifically on trans and nonbinary individuals.

Queering Gender

The first paper she published in the field is Queering gender: studying gender identity in “normative” individuals. The paper develops a new “Multi-GIQ” scale for measuring gender identity in both trans and cis individuals. The scale is used in a sample of 2225 individuals contacted over the internet. Joel et. al plot the data on several charts with interesting visualization techniques, showing some interesting results. 2018-11-12 15_35_02-Sci-Hub _ Queering gender_ studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals _.png

Just by visual inspection we can note individuals that identify as men that feel more like men than women and vice versa. There is also some level of bigenderism among several individuals. We can easily point out that a cis-trans binary focused on identification as a gender not typically associated with the gender assigned at birth is incoherent because it obscures the reality of identification: many “cis” individuals would be classified as bigender under nearly all definitions of bigender, and many would be classified as agender. These gender identities are very commonly considered “trans”. Even more, there are several cis individuals who have feelings that contrast the gender they were assigned: a woman feeling much more like a man than a woman.

2018-11-12 15_50_00-Sci-Hub _ Queering gender_ studying gender identity in ‘normative_ individuals2

While ‘qu\r’ individuals obviously had the most non-normative identities, substantiative numbers of supposedly normative individuals wished to be that of the ‘opposite gender’. If we’re operationalizing gender dysphoria as such, which many people in the trans community do, then that begets the conclusion that cis people can be dysphoric (something I’m perfectly willing to accept despite odd pushback).

Taken together, our findings suggest that dichotomous gender categorisation does not reflect the complexity and multiplicity of gender experience. Rather, our study provides supportive evidence to non-binary theories of gender (e.g. Corbett, 2009; Dimen, 1995, 2003, 2005; Goldner, 1991, 2003; Harris, 1991, 2005) that perceive gender as fluid rather than dichotomous, and consider all human beings, not just gender nonconforming individuals, to have complex assemblages of gendered selves (Harris, 2005).


Specifically, 36.6% of our non-Queer subjects reported that they sometimes feel as the ‘other’ gender (of these, 24% received scores above 1), 63.7% reported that they sometimes wish to be the ‘other’ gender (of these, 34% received scores above 1), 49% did not always wear clothes ‘appropriate’ to their sex (of these, 26% received scores below 3) and 41.9% were sometimes discontent with their sexed body (of these, 52% received scores above 1). These findings suggest that except for discontent with one’s sexed body, which is by its very definition dysphoric, the other types of feelings should not be viewed as reflecting gender dysphoria but rather the complexity and multiplicity of ‘normal’ gender experience.

While I appreciate the concession that cis individuals can experience dysphoria via discontent with ones sexed body, the dismissal of alternative definitions of gender dysphoria is somewhat annoying: I’ve seen many individuals attempt to reconcile ‘all trans people have dysphoria’ with the acceptance of a variety of trans individuals by (re)defining dysphoria as the wish to become another gender. The research shows this method is untenable in maintaining a coherent cis-trans binary.

Thus, Coolidge et al. (2002) reported that 2.3% of children scored in the clinically significant range of a six-item DSM-IV-based GID scale. Other studies report cross-gender behaviour in 2.4–10.4% of boys and 3.3–22.5% of girls (van Beijsterveldt, Hudziak, & Boomsma, 2006; Zucker, Bradley, & Sanikhani, 1997), the wish to be the other sex in 1–13.3% of boys and 2.8–13.3% of girls (Wallien et al., 2009; Zucker et al., 1997) and feeling like the other sex or more like the other sex in 4.6–10.4% of children (Wallien et al., 2009). Lai et al. reported that 1.9% of adult males and 7.3% of adult females were gender dysphoric

Some interesting results from the literature (which confirm the results of the study) which seemingly contradict Kay Brown’s claims that gender dysphoria is more common in “male” individuals. I suspect that this is not a result of intrinsic prevalence of being trans among the populations, but rather a product of societal norms (my post about butches and ftms could be enlightening as to how identity can obscure prevalence as well as my unsupported estimate that more trans men live as butch women than trans women live as feminine men). Regardless, there needs to be a lot more research into prevalence of gender dysphoria and trans identity among various populations.

Our results also do not support the prevalent view in contemporary psychoanalytic and critical theories that individuals have a binary sense of gender and that the heterosexual– homosexual binary constitutes, stabilises and naturalises the male–female binary

And while I adore this study, Joel et. al completely misrepresent Butler’s point here. It’s to be expected given that Joel is a neuroscientist and Butler is a continental philosopher who uses some complicated language and terminology that requires copious amounts of references to comprehend completely. Correlates do not disprove Butler and co’s claims about how sexuality and gender are produced by society, the discourses that surround the identities and how closely the two are related. Even more, Sedgewick and Butler would very likely not say that individuals simply “have a binary sense of gender”, their claims have much more to do with the discourses that surround gender than introspection. Butler’s work almost specifically breaks down the idea that binary gender is universally present. Despite many ‘normative’ individuals having decidedly ‘non-normative’ identities, they continue to uphold a societal system of binarism documented time and time again. From a more logical standpoint, the binary between homosexuality and heterosexuality implicitly accepts the idea that there are two mutually exclusive and immutable genders that are universally present: homosexuality for same and heterosexual for different. Even more, Butler more specifically claims that the heterosexual matrix naturalizes the male-female binary through its application of heterosexuality to everyone until it is stated or shown otherwise. Despite my adoration for Joel, it seems she is out of her depth when she wades into the philosophical feminist literature attempting to disprove descriptive statements about culture and discourse using individual representations of internal gender identity.


Jacobson and Joel recently published two studies relevant to our inquiry into the nature of gender identity. An Exploration of the Relations Between Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in an Online Sample of Cisgender Individuals. and Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexuality in an Online Sample of Cisgender, Transgender, and Gender-Diverse Individuals: An Exploratory Study.

The first notable thing that I want to highlight is not exactly related to gender identity or gender politics, but rather feminist politics and how MRAs (men’s rights activists) portray feminism politics. Table 2 indicates that 76.2% of women say they hold feminist views, 20.6% say ‘to some extent’ and only 3.2% do not. This is mirrored among men with moderately more negative reactions: 48.5% yes, 39.6% to some extent and 11.8% no. Contrary to the MRA narrative that ‘only 16% of women are feminists’, it seems as if a much larger portion are. Admittedly, this is not a representative sample and should not be extrapolated to the population as a whole, but it’s an interesting result that bears repeated testing with the same/similar questions.

As evident in Figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, many participants had what may be termed “queer” feelings, such as feeling both as a man and as a woman (38%) or as neither (35%), wishing to be the “other” gender (38%), or wishing to have the body of the “other” sex (35%)

A cross-cultural replication of the 2013 study, Joel again shows that a view that only trans people identify as genders other that they were assigned at birth is untenable and empirically false as a basis for cis-trans distinction.

The percent of binary individuals ranged between 8.8 and 40%, depending mostly on sexual orientation, with the highest percentage of binary individuals found in the exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual groups, which did not signifcantly differ (p=.80), and lower percentage in the mostly heterosexual, bisexual, and mostly homosexual groups

The results also indicate that strict gender roles marginalize a majority of the population of cishet individuals. There may be correlations between identified gender and gendered performance, but that is definitively a product of social norms that are produced and reproduced by gendered performance and there exists a large population of individuals who defy these norms.

The present findings conflict with the common postulation of direct relations between biological sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation in two major aspects, which are clearly evident in Fig. 1. First, while scientific discourse usually perceives gender identity as a clear-cut, binary personality structure, our data reveal large variability in individuals’ gender identity with about a third feeling at least to some degree as the “other” gender. Second, and out of line with the idea that an “atypical” sexual orientation would entail an “atypical” gender identity, variability in gender identity was evident throughout the sexual attraction continuum, with an almost complete overlap between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals in the range of scores on the different measures of gender identity. Moreover, even at the group level, only some non-heterosexual groups were significantly different from the exclusively heterosexual group. In fact, the finding that the group of exclusively homosexual men was not significantly different from the group of exclusively heterosexual men on any of the measures of gender identity is particularly in conflict with views strongly linking sexual orientation and gender identity. Our findings are in agreement, however, with the view that sexual orientation and gender identity are mostly distinct constructs.

Their summary of how the findings impact discourse on gender identity are good, but the bold part needs a large asterisk. The fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are coherently separate constructs is definitely a culturally specific phenomenon. In some cultures, gender and sexuality are not exactly considered distinct (see Thailand for example with gender identities and sexualities almost being considered identical in common parlance – which could have confounds when one looks at the Individualism vs Collectivism Hofstede scale and how it relates to the proportion of ‘nonhomosexual transsexuals’ in a country). In others, they’re interrelated in complex ways. Even more, the construct of sexuality is temporally and spatially-specific: cultures like that of the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed homosexuality not as a man loving another man, but a man being penetrated by a man – the act of penetration was not denigrated or deemed the same way as being penetrated was and moreover was not part of the same category. Foucault’s History of Sexuality is especially relevant on how sexuality and power are interconnected. And while gender identity and sexuality can be considered distinct constructs in the most abstract sense, we must also take note on how closely interrelated and intertwined one’s experiences of sexuality and gender identity fit together.

This finding is important because it highlights the fact that gender identities do not conform to narrowly defined dichotomous framings and suggests that identification with the “other” gender or wish to be the “other” gender or to have the body of the “other” sex are not necessarily a sign of gender dysphoria. Thus, our findings may normalize diversity in an area usually thought of as homogeneous, and by doing so help represent queer and transgender identities as belonging on the same gender grid as cisgender identities rather than as distinct phenomena.

One of my many gripes with the trans community (unfortunately transfeminists have many) is the insistence on telling individuals who have cross-gender feelings and urges that they must be trans in some fashion, that ‘only trans people want to be the “opposite” gender’, that ‘cis people don’t obsess over looking like the “opposite” gender’. It reifies an arbitrary distinction between cis and trans and while self-validating and potentially externally affirming, problematically erases the experiences of cis individuals who do in fact experience the feelings that many claim they don’t. Here it is in writing, wanting to be the “opposite” gender/sex cannot be the operationalization of gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria contemporarily can be considered a polysemic construct rather than a homogeneous term, perhaps best represented by a Wittgensteinian family resemblance (see my article on ftms and butches on family resemblances and how they relate to gender).

More generally, our study adds to a growing body of literature that challenges dichotomous conventions within the science of gender and sexuality (for a recent review, see Hyde, Bigler, Joel, Tate, & van Anders, in press).

Most excitingly for me is my discovery that Joel is writing a new paper that reviews the research on gender and sexuality.

2018-11-13 12_23_16-Sci-Hub _ An Exploration of the Relations Between Self-Reported Gender Identity

We can note that among many sexuality subgroups, men have higher scores on the ‘wish to be the “other” gender” item, and that both items varies non-monotonically with sexuality.


Again visual inspection yields individuals that dislike their sexed body and want to have the body of the “other” sex. Furthermore, the individuals are notably not exclusively homosexual.


The graph from the discussion on gender roles above.

There are numerous other little important results that if I were to include and discuss them would make this post much longer than would make it useful or readable.

Gender Diverse

Jacobson and Joel released another 2018 study, Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexuality in an Online Sample of Cisgender, Transgender, and Gender-Diverse Individuals: An Exploratory Study. It used a European-American sample of individuals rather than the original Israeli sample of the pioneering study, compromising a cross-cultural replication. It also introduces terminology not used in the pioneering study; “gender diverse”. I appreciate the movement away from ‘qu\r’ and while I think it’s the best solution, more could be done to clarify that genderqueer/nonbinary people can be transgender.


Again, there are AMAB men that feel like women and AFAB women that feel like men, cis men/women who feel like men and women, and cis men/women who feel somewhat unlike men and women. Also of note is that trans women/men feel less like women/men and more like men/women than cis women/men, again rebutting the idea that only trans people ‘feel’ like their gender.


Again, we note large numbers of cis individuals that feel like neither gender or as both genders, as well as trans individuals having higher rates of this (we see all of these values are quantifiable and almost all are significant in Table 2).


While we can easily note that trans and gender diverse individuals have much higher nonbinary scores on average, the range of these scores is almost identical among the 6 groups. This precludes the idea that nonbinary scores can, in every case, discriminate trans/nonbinary individuals from cis people (without forcefully categorizing individuals to best fit preconceived notions of the categories that best fit ones’ ideology).


And yet again, cis women and cis men have higher feelings of validity about their actual gender, unsurprisingly. Unfortunately this was not broken down by sexual orientation, but it’d definitely be a great exercise to see how homophobia/lesbophobia/biphobia/etc affects conceptualization of one’s gender identity as valid or invalid.

Implications for Trans Discourse

TERF Discourse

Joel et. al 2013

  • While the studies may be dismissed on face value by TERFs for using terms like ‘gender identity’ (of which I’m personally skeptical of, but that’s aside from the point) and directly referencing trans people in a supportive manner, Joel is famed in the radical feminist community because her researchers has important implications in the field of neuroscience of sex differences, namely that there are no “male” or “female” brains. In response to any claims about trans brains, they’ll typically cite Joel’s 2015 PNAS study while ignoring the nuances of the ‘trans brain studies’ (which they tend to homogenize into a monolith) that don’t necessarily claim that ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains exist. Many are reliant upon specific non-sexually dimorphic regions of the brain where trans individuals show atypical areas, values or signals, or make claims about the similarity of trans brains to cis brains that doesn’t create constructs of male/female brains. The long story short is that she’s widely cited in TERF spaces and has some level of credibility among them.
  • A common TERF claim is that “women don’t have gender identity” or “only trans people have gender identity”, both claims that are ‘disproven’ by the study. Gender identity was found to be persistent throughout large portions of the cis population, and many individuals reported ‘feeling like a woman’ / ‘feeling like a man’, things TERFs claim that do not exist in women (despite trans people pointing out that they often don’t understand the concept and/or don’t relate to it). [I’m separately skeptical about claims of feeling like a man/woman]
  • Another TERF claim about gender identity is that women have non-normative gender identities because societal misogyny disassociates them from their femaleness (the latter clause likely being true). But the study indicated that men have slightly higher non-normative gender identification, making it dubious to claim that misogyny is the cause of non-normative gender identity.
  • Yet another claim is that linking gender identity to sexual orientation, which is a claim that the study tested and disproved. There was no significant (non-scientific meaning) association with non-normative gender identity. Overall, r values were low. Even more, sexual orientation was not related with discontent with one’s sexed body; lesbians were not more likely to hate their body that heterosexual women.
  • Figure 7 indicates that qu\\rs have higher values of discontent with ones body, indicating that assertions that ‘all women are unhappy with their body’ are misleading and ignore the extent that trans individuals are unhappy/dysphoric about their body.
  • Gender roles aren’t upheld by trans/qu\\r individuals: “Men were more compliant with dress code than Women, and both Men and Women were more compliant than Queers”

Jacobson & Joel 2018

  • The research further confirms the results laid out above: that cis people have gender identities and “feel” like men/women, that sexual orientation and gender identity are very weakly linked (and not in a monotonic manner)
  • The second 2018 study we analyzed indicates that cis women and cis men have very similar feelings of non-normative gender identity. Even more, trans men/women and gender diverse individuals have much higher rates of feeling like neither gender or both genders than cis people do. It also confirmed results from previous studies about the interaction between sexuality and gender identity.
  • Essentially everything found in the Israeli sample was replicated in the predominantly English-speaking sample, lending further validity to the results.

Some Other Readings

A few of these were from the studies themselves, but I think should be highlighted for their specificity of the topic

Martin et. al 2016 A Duel Identity Approach for Conceptualizing and Measuring Children’s Gender Identity (Warning for binarism)

Nicole Rea’s Blurred Lines*: A Critical Examination of the Trans/Cis Dichotomy

Julia Serano (who I’m somewhat critical of) has a great essay describing the complexities of cis terminology

And a Tumblr post that articulates more specific problematic results of the cis-trans dichotomy rather than my accuracy-based analysis

Intersex-specific issues with the cis-trans dichotomy can be explored here and here, with personal experiences relayed here and here

Survey results highlighting the issue of casting the cis-trans binary onto nonbinary people


ftms & butches

The Five Ws

A further elaboration on the difficulty between drawing clear lines between ftms and butches, continued from my post here.


Gloria Anzaldúa first elaborated on her concept of the borderlands in “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”. The bilingual nature of the book emphasizes the foundation for her Chicana feminism that has been so central to modern postcolonial feminism, intersectional feminism and “third wave feminism”. In essence, she analyzes the invisible “borderlands” between groups of individuals typically cast and portrayed as opposites, breaking down dichotomies and emphasizing the intersections, all while critiquing the Western colonist thinking of binaries.


Judith Halberstram was among the first to apply the concept to the conflict, interplay and discourse between FTM (female-to-male) transgender individuals and butch lesbians in Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum. He expands on the points brought up in criticism and support of his older piece F2M, and in doing so touches upon the “border zones” that are explored in Borderlands. I’ll highlight the most important passages

Jones eloquently and forcefully articulates the limits of a monolithic and absolute
model of hormonally and surgically defined transsexual identity. His description of
the wild variability of masculinities and identifications across butch and transsexual bodies refuses, on the one hand, any notion of a butch-FTM continuum; on the
other hand, it acknowledges the ways in which butch and FTM bodies are read
against and through each other for better or for worse. His understanding of transgender variability produces an almost fractal model of cross-gender identifications
that can never return to the binary models of before and after transition, transsexual and nontranssexual, or butch and FTM.

So while it is true that transgender and transsexual men have been wrongly folded into lesbian history, it is also true that the distinctions between some transsexuals and lesbians may at times become quite blurry. Many FTMs do come out as lesbians before they come out as transsexuals (many, it must also be said, do not). For this reason alone, hard-and-fast distinctions between lesbians and FTMs are not always helpful

Using various butch, trans male and other gender diverse autobiographies and narratives, Halberstram explicates the instability and complexity of gender identity among lesbians and transmasculine individuals.

Finally, in relation to the project of making concrete distinctions between
butch women and transsexual males, all too often such distinctions serve the cause
of heteronormativity by consigning homosexuality to pathology and by linking
transsexuality to new heteronormative forms. For example, in a popular article on
FTMs that appeared in the New Yorker, Amy Bloom interviews several FTMs and
sex reassignment surgeons to try to uncover the motivations and mechanics of so-called high-intensity transsexualism

The places where the divisions between butch and FTM become blurry have everything to do with embodiment. As JordyJones suggests, many of those who take hormones might not make transgendered subjective identifications, while many self-identified transgendered men might not take hormones or pursue surgeries. Indeed, the labels butch and transsexual mark yet another gender fiction, the fiction of clear distinctions between categories.

There are many butches who pass as men and many transsexuals who present as gender ambiguous, as well as many bodies that cannot be classified as either transsexual or butch

However, in the border wars between butches and transsexual FTMs, FTMs are often cast as those who cross borders (of sex, gender, bodily coherence), while butches are left as those who stay in one place. The use of the term border war is both apt and problematic for this reason. On the one hand, the idea of a border war sets up some notion of territories to be defended, ground to be held or lost, permeability to be defended against. On the other hand, a border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and porous

If the borderlands are “uninhabitable” for some transsexuals who imagine
that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those
subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally. Prosser’s cartography of gender relies upon a belief in the two territories of
male and female, divided by a flesh border and crossed by surgery and endocrinology

Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross
from point A to point B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity. These distinctions do not map onto categories “transsexual” and
“nontranssexual” in an easy one-to-one correspondence.

The one thing that disappointed me in this essay was her retreat from the radical statement that ““There are no transsexuals. We are all transsexuals”. It was perhaps hyperbole, but it emphasized the instability, incoherence and fundamental nonexistence of gender categories. Despite that, it’s a good analysis and review of the differentiation of identity.


Gayle Rubin (a noted sex-positive feminist who has greatly influenced my politics) also wrote about identity in regards to trans men, butches, gender dysphoria and queerness. In The Transgender Studies Reader, Rubin introduces the concept of “butchness” and how it is placed historically within lesbian feminist and lesbian communities. Even more, she explains how it relates to gender dysphoria:

Butch is also the indigenous lesbian category for women who are gender “dysphoric.” Gender dysphoria is a technical term for individuals who are dissatisfied with the gender to which they were assigned (usually at birth) on the basis of their anatomical sex. Within the psychological and medical communities, gender dysphoria is considered a disorder, as were lesbianism and male homosexuality before the American Psychiatric Association removed them from its of official list of mental diseases in 1973. I am not using gender dysphoria in the clinical sense, with its connotations of neurosis or psychological impairment. I am using it as a purely descriptive term for persons who have gender feelings and identities that are at odds with their assigned gender status or their physical bodies. Individuals who have very powerful gender dysphoria, particularly those with strong drives to alter their bodies to conform to their preferred gender identities, are called transsexuals.

Unfortunately, she starts off by reducing transsexual identity to transition, a notion that has rightly been problematized in modern trans discourse, but it is understandable given the time period. What’s important is her emphasis that gender dysphoria is not something unique to trans people, it’s something experienced by butch women (which unfortunately she stops short of the important claim that it exists in more gender categories).

Within the group of women labeled butch, there are many individuals who are gender dysphoric to varying degrees. Many butches have partially male gender identities. Others border on being, and some are, female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs), although many lesbians and FTMs and the areas of overlap between butchness and transsexualism disturbing. Saying that many butches identify as masculine to some degree does not mean that all, even most, butches “want to be men,” although some undoubtedly do. Most butches enjoy combining expressions of masculinity with a female body. The coexistence of masculine traits with a female anatomy is a fundamental characteristic of “butch” and is a highly charged, eroticized, and consequential lesbian signal.

Further breaking down arbitrary notions of cis-trans identity (a model I’ve criticized for the recreation of dichotomies that trans politics typically professes to break down – also see my piece on Daphna Joel’s research), she points out that non-normative gender identity is present among individuals typically considered “cisgender”.

Sometimes lesbians use the term butch to indicate only the most manly women. But the equation of butch with hypermasculine women indulges a stereotype. Butches vary widely in how masculine they feel and, consequently, in how they present themselves. Some butches are only faintly masculine, some are partly masculine, some “dag” butches are very manly, and some “drag kings” pass as men. Butches vary in how they relate to their female bodies. Some butches are comfortable being pregnant and having kids, while for others the thought of undergoing the female component of mammalian reproduction is utterly repugnant. Some enjoy their breasts while others despise them. Some butches hide their genitals and some refuse penetration. There are butches who abhor tampons, because of their resonance with intercourse; other butches love getting fucked. Some butches are perfectly content in their female bodies, while others may border on or become transsexuals

Rubin breaks down dichotomous interpretations of butch, femme, trans and cis categories by emphasizing the range of gender identity, embodiment and experiences among butch lesbians. We can note that some of these narratives are nearly identical to that of trans men: it is difficult to create a clearcut distinction between trans men and lesbians without trapping people on one side or the other in contrast to their identity. Even more, the reification of a contrasting butch and ftm identities erases those who never transition out of one category or the other, that fit into both, live their lives as both and die as both. As emphasized in the last essay, any attempt to claim individuals living in this ‘border zone’ ends up making it more difficult for people to live their lives in that border zone.

No system of classification can successfully catalogue or explain the infinite vagaries of human diversity. To paraphrase Foucault, no system of thought can ever “tame the wild profusion of existing things.” Anomalies will always occur, challenging customary modes of thought without representing any actual threat to health, safety, or community survival. However, human beings are easily upset by exactly those “existing things” that escape classification, treating such phenomena as dangerous, polluting, and requiring eradication. Female-to-male transsexuals present just such a challenge to lesbian gender categories.

And as I would argue, butch lesbians present a challenge to the trans community’s gender categories that set up strict binaries between butch lesbians and trans men, or rather butches and ftms. Queer theory and its antecedent post-structuralism provides a poignant critique of territorializing bifurcations which shows up in Butler’s Gender Trouble, Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and so on.

Although important discontinuities separate lesbian butch experience and female-to-male transsexual experience, there are also significant points of connection. Some butches are psychologically indistinguishable from female-to-male transsexuals, except for the identities they choose and the extent to which they are willing or able to alter their bodies. Many FTMs live as butches before adopting transsexual or male identities. Some individuals explore each identity before choosing one that is more meaningful for them, and others use both categories to interpret and organize their experience. The boundaries between the categories of butch and transsexual are permeable.

The permeable nature of these boundaries alludes to a possible conceptualization of these gender categories as Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance concepts’ as Jacob Hale has utilized to analyze society’s meaning of women in reconstructing Monique Wittig’s assertion that lesbians are not women. Perhaps we can see the relationship between butches and ftms as the intersection of two family resemblance concepts, the border wars being a result of contests over who fits or does not fit within each category, political disputes resulting from the ambiguity of criterion necessary for membership augmented by social disparities, self-identification and ideology (as depicted in this analysis of Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts of ‘woman’ vs ‘man’). But again, the family resemblance concept does not lend itself particularly well to an anti-essentialist anti-foundationalist politics that emphasizes the difference of similarity and similarity of difference as a means for grounding solidarity while rejecting binaries. As such, my embrace of family resemblance concepts has always been reluctant and pragmatic in the need to explicate the complexity of identity to those ‘stuck’ in regressive understandings of gender as strict binaries.

A sex change is a transition. A woman does not immediately become a man as soon as she begins to take hormones. During the initial states of changing sex, many FTMs will not be ready to leave the world of women. There is no good reason to harass them through a transitional period during which they will not quite fit as women or men. Most FTMs who undergo sex reassignment identify as men and are anxious to live as men as soon as possible. They will leave lesbian contexts on their own, when they can, when they are ready, and when those environments are no longer comfortable. It is not necessary for gender vigilantes to drive them out. Some FTMs will experiment with sex change and elect to abandon the effort. They should not be deprived of their lesbian credentials for having explored the option.

This passage is particularly relevant to modern gender politics for two reasons:

  1. It explains why trans men are often seen in women spaces (female-only spaces, lesbian dating apps like Her) and why trans women are sometimes seen on gay dating apps like Grindr: a period of transition, experimentation and testing identity where one tries to figure out where exactly in the modern gender schema they fit
  2. The proliferation of nonbinary identities, in particular nonbinary lesbians and gay nonbinary individuals, can be seen as a method of carving out a new space for gendered performance and sexuality to exist by rejecting the binaries of gender ideology. But of course, idle speculation should not outweigh the voices of those involved.

Lesbian communities and individuals have suffered enough from the assumption that we should all be the same, or that every difference must be justified by a claim of political or moral superiority. We should not attempt to decide whether butch-femme or transsexualism are acceptable for anyone or preferable for everyone. Individuals should be allowed to navigate their own trails through the possibilities, complexities, and difficulties of life in postmodern times. Each strategy and each set of categories has its capabilities, accomplishments, and drawbacks. None is perfect, and none works for everyone all the time

Community is not a homogenous unit of individuals akin to a “Borg collective”, it’s a rhizome perpetuated by negotiation with individuals asserting themselves as members, not without conflict but with plenty of it. There is no reason why ‘the’ ‘lesbian community’ cannot include trans men, trans women and nonbinary individuals of all colors and stripe other than that of rigid gender terrorism: the insistence on immutable, contrasting and opposing genders that are simple and neat. It’s society’s love of fitting people into boxes applied to gender.

Feminism and lesbian-feminism developed in opposition to a system that imposed rigid roles, limited individual potential, exploited women as physical and emotional resources, and persecuted sexual and gender diversity. Feminism and lesbian-feminism should not be used to impose new but equally rigid limitations, or as an excuse to create new vulnerable and exploitable populations. Lesbian communities were built by sex and gender refugees; the lesbian world should not create new rationales for sex and gender persecution.

A necessary read for those self-described “gender critical radical feminists” who terrorize trans, nonbinary, lesbian and queer individuals for their identities, bodies, relationships, experiences and existences that justify the ideological schema of radical feminism (used here to describe ‘TERF’ radical feminism).

Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. T e fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman,” “butch,” “lesbian,” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism.

There are some important points that are made within the ending paragraph of this piece, but the conclusion falls flat into the depths of liberalist identity conceptualizations rather than the radical negation of identity. An analysis of identity categories reveals the rigid bases these categories are founded upon, not built for fluidity and negotiation, but for categorization and the subsequent oppression. It is only through the wholesale rejection of identity can true liberation be realized.


And of course the piece that I referenced in my previous piece, Consuming the living, (disremembering) the dead in the Butch/FTM border wars, makes the points in the strongest, most pungent manner.

If people insist on appropriating this corpse by locating it definitively within any particular identity category, they must explain away multiple inconsistencies, ambiguities, and ambivalences in self-identification, self-explanation, behavior and presentation by using concepts of denial, repression, fear, and internalized prejudice and shame that all tend to diminish the agency of the subject once animated in that dead flesh. To justify belief in different, solidly located outcomes, all that need shift is the content of these schematic rhetorical devices and those aspects of life to which they are applied.

Undeniably, an important characteristic of ftm subjectivity is masculine subjectivity in persons assigned female at birth and raised girl-to-woman with fairly unambiguous female embodiments for at least part of our lives. Once we try to be more precise about the relative notions of masculine subjectivity, however, matters become extremely complicated. Masculine subjectivity cannot be simply reduced to self-identification as a man, as not all ftms self-identify as men in any simple, nonproblematic way. Several alternatives are available here. Some ftms, such as David Harrison, self-identify as transsexual men and view that as “a different gender from what people commonly think of as man”. Michael M. Hernandez writes, “My sexual orientation is queer. I consider myself to be a hybrid of woman and man, and thus lesbian as well as gay”.

Indeed, some butches might have richer, more solid male or masculine self-identifications than do some ftms. Consequently, drawing a distinction between butches and ftms in terms of masculine subjectivity threatens to elide both some ftms’ self-identifications and some butches’ self-identifications relative to the categories “man”, “male”, and “masculine”

Yet some butches also avail themselves of some of the same reembodiment technologies, including exogenous testosterone, breast removal and chest reconstruction, hysterectomy, oophremectomy, bodybuilding, and genital alteration through piercing.

As Zachary I. Nataf notes, in some cases, self-identification might be the only distinguishing characteristic. Indeed, in some cases there may be no distinction at all, since some people self-identify as both butch and ftm.

It is no doubt misguided to try to locate one or two necessary or sufficient conditions by which to demarcate butch/ftm differences. Most people who participate in trans communities take it as already given that there is no one characteristic that provides a sharp distinction between nontranssexual women and nontranssexual men, although it would be fallacious to draw from this the conclusion that there is no distinction at all. Elsewhere I have argued that the dominant cultural definition of woman in the contemporary United States has thirteen defining characteristics, clustered into several groups and weighted differently. None of these thirteen characteristics is necessary or sufficient for membership in the category “woman”. Rather these characteristics are best understood as Wittgensteinian family resemblances: resemblances that some women, to greater or lesser degrees, share with some other women, just as I share some resemblances with some members of my biological family to greater or lesser degrees share with others in my biological family.

Analytically pursuing definitions of ftm and butch in terms of Wittgensteinian resemblance characteristics would render a descriptively adequate distinction more likely than would attempting to draw a sharp distinction based on one or two clusters of characteristics such as masculine subjectivity and male reembodiment. Concerns about how such a definition of ftm would likely function, however, stay my hand, for it could easily provide a paradigm paralleling the coercive medicalized construct of the “real”, “true” or “primary” (female-to-male) transsexual.

The dilemma of providing definitions for identity categories has haunted me in my time in the qu\r community, as I tend to refuse to provide stark demarcations for determining membership in one category or another, but am also quite skeptical of Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts due to the implicit wars over membership in categories that would recreate the aftermentioned “true transsexual” politics (also see Kapusta’s thesis on the fights over membership and the necessity of dissemblance that quickly makes a family resemblance untenable).

Ken Morris and Candance Hellen Brown propose to define transsexual in terms of desire, writing, “It is not surgery which defines a transsexual, but the internal visualization and experience of the body as being of the opposite [sic] sex, which creates the desire to bring the body into conformity with the internal image.” This proposal is unsatisfactory on four accounts. First, it either classifies as transsexual those butches who desire at least partial male reembodiment or, if it is tightened to require desire for “complete” reembodiment, it implies that ftms who do not have this desire are not transsexual. Second, it is transsexual-centric at best to classify as transsexual someone who desires reembodiment but elects not to act on that desire and does not self-identify as transsexual, as Morris and Brown’s definition implies, since they propose that desire based on internal visualization and somatic experience is sufficient for membership in the category “transsexual”. A third problem is that not all transsexuals report having any positive visualization or experience of their pretransitional bodies as bodies that are culturally encoded as male; some ftms, instead, talk about being disassociated from their bodies or unhappy with their bodies and do not form a positive visualization or somatic experience until their bodies are hormonally or surgically altered. The fourth problem is more directly relevant the classification of historical individuals into contemporary categories: just as some contemporary people are able to form desires for reembodiment only under the condition that they are aware that reembodiment is a possibility for themselves, Morris and Brown’s definition ignores relationships between having a desire and having concepts through which to form or make sense of a desire.

Identity is always doubly relational (at a minimum). We form and maintain our identities by making continuous reiterated identifications as members of some category U(s). This is accomplished both positively and negatively by repeated identification with some (not necessarily all) members of U, and by reiterated identifications as non-members of some other category T(hem). Identifying as and identifying with, while closely related, are not identical. Identifying as U always involves identifying with some members of U, but the converse does not hold; for example, I identify with leather dykes – as a result of historical ties, continuing friendship circles, and some semblances of sensibility and values – but I no longer identify as a leather dyke.

Hale’s piece is one of my favorite refutations to “true transsexual” politics that helps explicate the nuances of trans identity in the face of gendered society and the norms that result, as well as the specific focus on trans male identity. I highly recommend reading the entire piece.


A recent work that reflects on Hale’s Consuming the Living is Weiss’ The Lesbian Community and FTMs.

In 1998, Dr. Jacob Hale wrote “Consuming the Living, Dis(re)membering the Dead in the Butch/FTM Borderlands.” He discussed the competing claims by lesbians and FTMs regarding the gender identity of historical figures. The title refers to a ‘borderland’ between butch lesbian identity and FTM masculinity, which consumes the living, “disremembers” the psychological identity of the dead, as well as “dismembering” their physical status as FTMs or lesbians (depending on which side of the line you reside).

There is no evidence that the combatants have changed their positions, or their fervor. The line is real. It is sign of difference, a line of demarcation, and an identity distinction of great importance to both lesbians and FTMs. Nonetheless, I contend that the border may not have a long future. There are converging trends in sexual identity that suggest such a result. These changes primarily affect the younger generation in their teens and twenties. First, the old labels are shifting in meaning. ‘Lesbian’ is moving away from a primarily political discourse of ‘woman-identified woman.’ ‘FTM’ is moving away from a primarily medical discourse of ‘sex change.’

Second, sexuality and gender among the younger generation have changed and begun to blend. Many young people now identify as ‘genderqueer,’ a word suggesting the conjunction of both gender and gayness, and pluralistic challenges to the gender binary (Weiss 2004 a). ‘Lesbians’ can have sex with men–can even be men (born male-bodied or female-bodied). ‘FTM’ can mean ‘female towards male’ and refer to a lesbian, a woman and/or a man. Such a person may have sex with women, or men, or either.

Third, differences among sexuality and gender are regarded as personal differences, not identity differences. Being a woman who has sex with women, but who considers oneself masculine does not require identification as ‘butch.’ Being a woman who considers herself transgender does not mean abandoning one’s identity as a lesbian and taking on an FTM identity.

“Here is how one lesbian described herself and her friends in 2002:”

One of my friends identifies as a female-bodied butch. He says he is neither a womon nor a lesbian, and he takes only womyn lovers. Another friend says that s/he is a lesbian and also a man. Yet another says s/he is a masculine womon. I know two people who identify as transgendered womyn–one is a biological man and the other a biological womon. The bioman dresses and lives as a womon; the biowoman dresses and lives as a man. Both call themselves lesbian. I have come to understand that, although there is not yet a name for my desires, I am a womon, a lesbian womon, and a femme, who deeply desires male presence in female bodies. I love men on top of me and inside me. This is my kind of lesbianism

There are also lesbians who consider themselves transgender but want to remain women:

I routinely speak before groups of young queers like Jesse who refuse to identify as gay or straight because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t even select their partners by sex.


The works I summarized and analyzed today demonstrate the false dichotomy between ftm and butch identities and problematize the purported clearcut bifurcation between the rich identities. By the utilization of a single characteristic to attempt to cleave ftm from butch or vice versa, advocates problematically ignore the lived experiences of both butches and ftms. The deconstruction of the butch-ftm dichotomy has further implications for contemporary gender politics: cis vs trans, straight vs gay, trans vs drag queen, trans vs gender nonconforming, bisexual vs pansexual, male vs female, gender vs sex, and other gender/sexuality binaries. And while single-characteristic conceptualizations of the distinction between butch and ftm fail, so do Wittgensteinian conceptualizations that use a litany of characteristics to distinguish the two groups by reinforcing ‘trutrans’ politics and medicalization of personal identity. The essays here provide clear reasoning for the necessity of anti-essentialist gender politics in our rapidly shifting world of gender and sexuality identities.

Some Other Readings

Butch Wonder’s work on the conflict between butch women and trans men

Queer Like Us descriptions of various individuals gendered lives

Matt Kailey’s piece on ‘the Great Divide’

Slate’s article on the ‘border between butch and trans’

An analysis of the conflict in the show The L Word

A Medium narrative on the coloniality of trans and butch identity

A reading of Stone Butch Blues through the lens of the border wars

FTM Trans Theory VS. Trans Narratives by Emily Nelson